Life As We Know It


Life As We Know It

Josh Duhamel is only glad there's no poop on HIS face.

(Warner Brothers) Katherine Heigl, Josh Duhamel, Josh Lucas, Hayes McArthur, Christina Hendricks, The Clagett Triplets, Sarah Burns, Jessica St. Clair, Britt Flatmo, Kumail Nanjiani, Will Sasso, Majandra Delfino, DeRay Davis, Melissa McCarthy, Rob Huebel, Andrew Daly. Directed by Greg Berlanti

Is there a secret to life? Most people agree that if there is, it is elusive at best, but there is one secret that’s fairly graspable; change is inevitable.

Uptight upscale bakery owner Holly Berenson (Heigl) has just exited from a long-term relationship that went nowhere. Her best friend Allison Novack (Hendricks) has set her up with her husband Peter’s (McArthur) best friend Eric Messer (Duhamel).

It would have been the date from hell had it even gotten that far. The laid-back lothario Messer (who prefers to be addressed by his last name) arrives an hour late, sans dinner reservation and to top it all off takes a booty call that he sets up for the same night. Amused at first, Holly is at last infuriated and storms back into her apartment, having not even pulled away from the curb.

Three years later they are celebrating the first birthday of little Sophie Novack (Clagett). While the date went sour, Messer and Holly still remain best friends to the Novacks and while Messer annoys Holly terribly, they remain civil for the most part for the sake of their friends. All that goes by the wayside when they get the phone call that Peter and Allison were killed in an auto accident. However, that’s almost equal to the shock they receive when they find out that their friends named them as guardians of little Sophie in the event of their demise.

The will specifies that Sophie remain in the suburban Atlanta home…or maybe estate would be more accurate…that the Novacks lived in. With the mortgage pre-paid for a year, the two godparents take up uneasy residence in the house and try to somehow be parents.

It’s a rough go, as they are completely clueless about childcare and they still get along like Yankees fans and Red Sox fans, only less violent. However their love for little Sophie and their feelings of obligation towards their dead friends keep them plugging away, despite Messer’s attempts to seduce half of Atlanta, Holly’s ambitious expansion plans for her bakery and her own romantic interest in Sophie’s handsome pediatrician whom Messer names, not unkindly, “Dr. Love” (Lucas).

While there is clearly tension between Holly and Mess, there is also just as clearly attraction between the two as the social caseworker Janine (Burns) notices. However, what little connection they have is stretched to the breaking point when Messer gets a job offer for his dream job – which will take him out of Atlanta and into Phoenix if he accepts.

This is a movie that careens from romantic comedy to drama, sometimes in a jarring fashion, but I get the sense that overall the filmmakers saw this as the former. Somewhat ironically, I think the dramatic sequences tend to work much better than most of the comedic ones, which rely on baby poop, baby vomit and sleep deprivation for most of the gags. Had the movie steered itself away from the romance, toned down the comedy and concentrated on the bringing up baby aspects a little bit more, I think this would have been a really great movie.

Unfortunately, the romantic comedy formula is followed nearly to the letter; boy and girl meet, dislike each other intensely, come together and then are split apart before coming back together in the final reel. It seems like every studio romantic comedy follows the same bloody formula without exception and I for one am tired of it, but it seems the appetite for such formula romcoms is endless so until Hollywood stops making money hand over fist with them we will continue to see them churned out one after the other into multiplexes all over the world.

That said, the chemistry between Heigl (who is the mistress of uptight professional women roles) and Duhamel, who has become a pretty decent romantic lead in his own right, is undeniable. The two are believable as a couple which is at the heart of any romcom. Lucas, who is one of those actors who just does a good job every time out but never gets the credit he deserves, is solid as the third part of the romantic triangle.

I am not big on babies in the movies, but I will say that Sophie may be the most charming baby I’ve ever seen onscreen. She is portrayed by triplets (and then at the film’s conclusion by twins as she ages in the film) and they all seem to have a fairly expressive facial palate.

While I would have liked to have seen either less formula in the romantic comedy aspect, or more of the serious drama of picking up the pieces after the death of the parents, the filmmakers seem to settle for a little bit of both and wind up with a playing-it-safe mish-mash that ends up curiously unsatisfying, despite all the items on the plus side of the ledger. I don’t know if Berlanti and his writers went the taking-no-chances route of their own volition, or if studio bigwigs hamstrung them but I wish they had been a bit bolder in their choices.

REASONS TO GO: Nice chemistry between Duhamel and Heigl; the baby may be the most charming movie baby ever.

REASONS TO STAY: The script is awfully formulaic and doesn’t really send any surprised the audience’s way.

FAMILY VALUES: There’s a little bit of sexuality, a little bit of bad language, a little bit of drug humor and a good deal of baby poop. Pretty much acceptable for most reasonably mature teens.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Those who stay to the very end of the movie will hear a currently unreleased Faith Hill song (“All I Needed”) on the soundtrack.

HOME OR THEATER: Quite frankly this is a movie that will make you want to cuddle with your loved one; definitely worth seeing at home.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Amreeka

Away We Go


Away We Go

A young couple face an uncertain future armed only with their love for each other.

(Focus) John Krasinski, Maya Rudolph, Jeff Daniels, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Allison Janney, Chris Messina, Catherine O’Hara, Jim Gaffigan, Melanie Lynskey, Paul Schneider. Directed by Sam Mendes

At some point in all of our lives we are forced to grow up. Usually some sort of life-changing event is the catalyst – a new job, financial difficulties or impending marriage/parenthood. Whatever the cause, we are required to put aside the irresponsibilities of our youth and get serious about our future.

Burt (Krasinski) and Verona (Rudolph) are very much in love. They are pleasant, smart people, both with jobs that enable them to work at home wherever that home may be. They live in a ramshackle house that is probably well beneath what they can afford. However, Verona is expecting their first child and that changes everything.

Further complicating things are Burt’s parents Gloria (O’Hara) and Jerry (Daniels) who they were hoping would help with the child-rearing thing. Rather than assisting with their grandchild, Gloria and Jerry are more eager to move to Antwerp. This leads Burt and Verona to the revelation that they are completely free to live anywhere now, but with that freedom comes choice – where to live?

This leads them on a road trip to visit various relatives and friends to examine the relative merits of various locations as places to raise their impending family. First is Arizona, where Verona’s ex-boss Lily (Janney) lives with her husband Lowell (Gaffigan). Lily is a foul-mouthed, borderline alcoholic who actually does her best to convince Verona not to move to Arizona. It’s probably a good thing, too, considering all the dumbass legislation that has been coming out of there lately.

Next on the list is Madison, Wisconsin where lives a childhood friend of Burt’s, LN (Gyllenhaal), who teaches radical feminist bullshit (as far as I can make out) and has adopted a goofy New Age mantra that makes her a loonie of the first order. I’d say she’s a caricature but I’ve met a few sorts who aren’t far off from the views she espouses so we’ll leave it at wacko.

It’s on to Montreal where college chums of the both of them Tom (Messina) and Munch (Lynskey) seem to be living ideal lives and at first it’s very appealing to Burt and Verona but soon the desperate unhappiness simmering beneath the surface for their friends comes boiling through.

Next is Miami where Burt’s brother (Schneider) is struggling with a wife who left him to raise their children alone. This is one of the more poignant of the vignettes, but the experience leaves Burt and Verona a little shaken. After all this, Burt and Verona are faced with their decision, but what are they going to choose?

Director Mendes made this hot on the heels of his last movie, Revolutionary Road which was a totally different animal. Mendes is known for his condemnation of the suburban lifestyle, which he has explored in movies like the aforementioned Revolutionary Road and American Beauty but this is a bit gentler and a bit more quirky than his previous movies.

Krasinski and Rudolph, both TV veterans (from “The Office” and SNL respectively) do very well on the big screen. Their relationship is totally believable and the viewer is left with no doubt that these are two people who love each other very deeply. Yes, they have a certain amount of indie film arrogance about them, but Burt and Verona are genuinely nice people who are a little bit more educated than most and a little bit kinder than most. If that makes them smug and superior to some, well I suppose they have reason to be.

The various location vignettes work with varying degrees. Janney and Gaffigan are a bit out of whack with the overall tone of the film and it is a bit jarring. The Miami and Montreal vignettes are the best, ruthlessly honest and brutally frank.

The script is well-written by novelists Dave Eggers and Vendela Vida who are romantically involved themselves. One gets the impression there’s an awful lot of the two of them in Burt and Verona (even the names are similar), so that may be why the film rings so true. Authenticity is a commodity that serves movies like this very well, and there’s an abundance of it here.

The truth of the matter is that there is always someplace better, but if you want the perfect place, it is almost inevitably the place where you’re at – wherever the one you love is, there is the perfect place to raise a family. Those who complain that there are no good romantic comedies anymore would do well to check out Away We Go – it blows all those formula movies right out of the water.

WHY RENT THIS: The chemistry between Krasinski and Rudolph is more than believable, and they both deliver fine performances. Supporting cast does very well.  

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Sometimes a bit too low-key for its own good; the one vignette that is louder is jarring to the film’s overall tone.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of sexuality, as well as some foul language. For my taste, some of the humor is adult but mature teens will be able to enjoy this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Toni Collette was originally cast in the Maggie Gyllenhaal role but had to drop out due to scheduling conflicts.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: There is a feature on how the filmmakers tried to make the production eco-friendly with the help of a group called Earthmark.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: State of Play

Crazy Heart


Crazy Heart

Maggie Gyllenhaal and Jeff Bridges hold each other in a romance that could easily have been a country song...oh yeah, it is.

(Fox Searchlight) Jeff Bridges, Maggie Gyllenhaal, Robert Duvall, Colin Farrell, Colin Farrell’s eyebrows, James Keane, Rick Dial, Jack Nation, Ryan Bingham, Ryil Adamson, J. Michael Oliva, Debrianna Mansini. Directed by Scott Cooper

As humans, we all make mistakes and it is sometimes the case that we pay for those mistakes for a very long time. That we sometimes pay more than we think we owe is part of the human condition and is part of what we all have in common, one of the five universal truths of our existence.

Bad Blake (Bridges) is 57 years old and nearly broke. He was once a bright star in the country music scene, making songs that have retained a certain amount of popularity, enough to keep him on the road going from dive to dive, playing his songs with local musicians backing him in front of audiences ranging from disinterested to star-struck. He is even reduced to playing bowling alleys, where he is not allowed a bar tab but is given, enthusiastically, all the free bowling he desires.

Bad is an alcoholic, a product of too many years on the road, too many disappointments. He is constantly butting heads with his agent (Keane) who clearly has affection towards his client but is just as clearly frustrated with his antics. The drinking has prevented Bad from writing new songs in several years; it has just as surely destroyed most of the relationships in his life. Mostly these days he drifts from one nameless one-night-stand to another, a different drunken encounter with past-their-prime women in each small town he plays in.

In Santa Fe, New Mexico one of the musicians he has been assigned, a proficient keyboard player named Wesley Barnes (Dial) asks Bad if it would be okay if his niece Jean (Gyllenhaal), a writer for the local paper, interviews him. Bad is not real crazy about doing press, but he recognizes that he needs every bit of it he can get so he says yes. There is something about Jean that immediately connects to him. Maybe it’s her vulnerability, her familiarity with the music he grew up with. Maybe it’s just that she has a smoking hot body. Either way, Bad develops a hankering for her, one that leads to romance.

One of Bad’s protégés is Tommy Sweet (Farrell), who once played in Bad’s backup band and has since broken away to become one of the biggest stars in country music. The two have had a falling-out since then, with Bad seemingly resentful of Tommy’s success, but still maintaining a grudging admiration for the man. For Tommy’s part, he is certainly aware of Bad’s role in his career and is willing to help, even if his record company isn’t so keen on the idea. Tommy arranges for Bad to open for him in Phoenix, giving the road-weary legend renewed exposure to the big time.

On the way back from Phoenix Bad decides to stop back in Santa Fe and visit Jean and her four-year-old son Buddy (Nation) who has bonded with Bad, but on the way there he falls asleep at the wheel – very likely because he’s had too much to drink – and crashes his truck. He wakes up in a Santa Fe hospital with a broken ankle and a concussion. He is in no condition to drive back home to Houston, so he convalesces with Jean. He begins to experience a sense of what it’s like to be part of a family, the kind of life he gave up, along with a son who is now grown and that he hasn’t seen since he was Buddy’s age.

However, Jean is disturbed by Bad’s excessive drinking and smoking, and asks him to tone it down around Buddy. Bad, ever-cheerful, promises to do so but he has a hard time doing it. As he is getting ready to head back home, his agent calls with the news that he has signed a contract to do some song-writing for Tommy Sweet. This could mean some real money, the first in a long time for Bad. After a tender good-bye, he drives home to Houston.

He is welcomed home by his friend Wayne (Duvall), the owner of a bar that he plays in from time to time. Inspired by his relationship with Jean, Bad begins writing some of the best songs of his career and invites Jean to visit him in Houston with Buddy. Can Bad really make a go at it this late in the game, or will his vices come boiling up to the surface with another installment payment on his sins due?

Jeff Bridges has emerged as the favorite (and, having never won one despite three nominations, the sentimental favorite as well) to win the Best Actor Oscar and with as much certainty as one can ever predict such things, will do so. We’ve seen the broken-down drunk country singer in countless movies and CMT music videos; in Bridges, we believe it. We see him seemingly hit bottom only to find a way to descend even further. He means well, and he’s not really a bad guy, he’s just possessed by the bottle.

The surprise is that Gyllenhaal emerges with a performance which stands up to Bridges. She is given the role of a much younger woman falling for a man that on the surface there is no reason for her to fall for. He stinks of cigarettes and booze, is clearly not the best-looking rider in the rodeo and can only be counted upon to mess up. Still, she manages to make us believe that the romance which is at the core of the movie is real and believable, even if we can’t quite see how it is happening.

The temptation here would have been to use music that had some pop potential, cranked out by slick Nashville songwriters or Hollywood pop producers. Instead, the filmmakers enlisted T-Bone Burnett, a producer/songwriter/performer who has never hit it really big but is well-respected within the music industry. He has managed to craft songs that have elements of Leonard Cohen, Waylon Jennings, John Hiatt and even a little bit of Ryan Adams in them. The soundtrack is truly incredible, equal parts country, blues and rock. Bridges and Farrell sing their own parts (including a duet) and they do a credible job, Bridges’ gravelly road-weary voice sounding exactly what you would think a whiskey and cigarette-roughened throat would produce. It’s quite simply one of the better film soundtracks ever.

As someone who has spent enough time in bars and clubs in my days as a rock critic, I can vouch for the authenticity of the movie. I’ve been to shows where performers from days gone by come in all their faded glory to play for an audience looking to recapture their youth for just a few hours, balanced out with a select few who merely want to touch something magical while its still there. It is an environment of desperation and determined battle against the demons of drink and age. You can almost smell the roadhouse perfume of stale beer and tobacco, with a vague whiff of vomit permeating the movie. This would certainly have made the top half of my Years Best list had I seen it during 2009; I may wind up granting it an exception to appear on my 2010 list because it deserves to be lauded.

Every so often a movie comes along that just grabs your imagination and holds it, and the result is that you experience a kind of magic that changes you or at least your perception. While Crazy Heart has a few cliches in its genetic makeup, it still accomplishes that magic that occurs when the performances, filmmaking and music all come together in a perfect blend. This is Bad Blake’s journey and while it isn’t an easy one, it is a compelling ride to be sure.

REASONS TO GO: Bridges gives the performance of a lifetime, and Gyllenhaal a powerful turn that nicely offsets his. The music for this movie is wonderful and the soundtrack worth seeking out.

REASONS TO STAY: The plot occasionally veers into territory that has been well-mined in the past, and it is never clear why Jean falls for him in the first place.

FAMILY VALUES: The language is rather blue here, and there’s some sexuality, but more than that there is a lot of drinking (and the consequences of it) and smoking. Probably a little rough for the younger ones, but mature teens should be okay with this.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The big Phoenix concert scenes were filmed between sets at a Toby Keith concert. Keith is thanked in the credits.

HOME OR THEATER: While much of the movie is small and intimate, nonetheless the concert sequences work better on a bigger screen.

FINAL RATING: 9/10

TOMORROW: English as a Second Language